Maverick Citizen


The ‘corporate capture’ of the Covid-19 pandemic

The ‘corporate capture’ of the Covid-19 pandemic
Coca-Cola bottles are displayed on a shelve at a supermarket in Nice, France, 20 January 2020 (reissued 27 June 2020). EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

From marketing with pandemic lingo to government donations, companies selling unhealthy products are exploiting the pandemic.

Alcohol and junk food companies have used the pandemic to ‘ingratiate’ themselves with the public and governments – yet their products are driving non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that exacerbate Covid-19 infections.

This is according to ‘Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm’, a report released in the second week of September that crowdsourced the global pandemic activities of the “unhealthy commodities industry” – alcohol, junk food and drink, baby formula, fossil fuel and gambling companies.

Junk food and soda donations to health workers and children’s homes, a beer company marketing a six-foot “social distancing cooler” and donations to government relief efforts are some of the examples that were collected by the NCD Alliance (NCDA) and Spectrum Consortium.

“It is a bitter irony that companies such as tobacco, alcohol and junk food manufacturers, whose products increase the risk of NCDs, thereby putting people at higher risk of suffering through the pandemic, have positioned themselves as heroes and partners in the response and have interfered in public policies that seek to protect population health,” said Lucy Westerman, NCDA policy and campaigns manager and a co-author of the report. 

There is a substantial body of scientific evidence linking the regular consumption of sugary drinks and ultraprocessed food with obesity, hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular problems. People living with these conditions are at a much greater risk of severe illness and death from Covid-19. 

The unhealthy commodity industries have been quick to link their messaging and products to the work of health professionals, emergency services and other frontline workers during the pandemic.

The researchers collected 786 examples from 94 countries, mostly from alcohol and ultraprocessed food and drink companies.

They identified four main areas: marketing and promotion; corporate social responsibility initiatives; partnerships and policy development. 

The unhealthy commodity industries have been “quick to link their messaging and products to the work of health professionals, emergency services and other frontline workers during the pandemic’’, according to the report.

For example, in New Zealand and the UK, Krispy Kreme offered free doughnuts to frontline workers. Brazilian beer maker Karsten modified its logo to resemble a pair of lungs – the main site of Covid-19 infection – and encouraged consumers to follow three key tips to survive the pandemic: isolate, use sanitiser and drink beer for fun.

Katie Dain, CEO of the NCDA, said the report “raises concerns about the prospect of a corporate capture of Covid-19”. 

“We see that companies are deploying these tactics pretty consistently worldwide in order to ingratiate themselves with policymakers while barely concealing cynical attempts to weaken current rules and head off future policies,” added Dain.

Tobacco company Philip Morris International donated 50 ventilators through its Greek subsidiary, Papastratos, to intensive care units in Greece and received public thanks from the country’s health minister.

The Ugandan government praised Coca-Cola as a ‘long-standing partner in health causes’ after it donated money and trucks to the health ministry.

The Ugandan government praised Coca-Cola as a “long-standing partner in health causes” after it donated money and trucks to the health ministry.

Mozambique’s health minister thanked alcohol company AB InBev’s Cervejas de Moçambique for its donation of hand sanitiser, praising “their sense of sharing, in a gesture of friendship”. 

Labram Musah, national coordinator of the NCDA in Ghana, cited how beer producer Guinness Ghana Breweries had “donated to the Ministry of Information a huge sum of funding and also a pack of 1,500 Guinness to support frontline workers”. 

In addition, the Ghanaian Minister of Energy had a media event to accept a donation to the country’s Covid-19 relief fund from the online gambling company, Betway. 

Pierre K Cooke from the Healthy Caribbean Coalition described “predatory marketing practices towards young people” and “donations from alcohol companies and fast-food companies to vulnerable groups, communities and children’’.

Acknowledging that many of the activities they reported on provided “invaluable funding for much-needed interventions by governments, civil society and international organisations”,  the authors said their focus was on “examining how unhealthy commodity industries have sought strategic advantage”.

The NCDA fears that governments might be more reluctant to regulate the companies that have given them financial support during the pandemic. The Scottish government has already reneged on an earlier undertaking to regulate various junk-food promotions. 

“The merciless impact of Covid-19 on people living with NCDs makes clear that policy change is more urgent than ever,” said Dain. “To build back better from the pandemic, governments need to regulate these industries more strictly to protect people against preventable NCDs and make our societies healthier and more resilient to future health threats.” DM/MC

  • The NCDA has appealed to the public to contribute to their dataset of  examples of harmful industries exploiting the pandemic.

Kerry Cullinan is health editor of openDemocracy and Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu is openDemocracy East Africa investigative reporting fellow.


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